A new Gate City rite of passage?

by Brian Clarey

I haven’t had a gun pulled on me in a long time. But that’s exactly what happened on Thursday night, just a few strokes before midnight with the moon approaching fullness behind a sheen of high cloud cover and a loose wind easing through the trees.

YES! Weekly Art Director Lauren Cartwright and I were on assignment that night at the Weatherspoon Gallery (see story, p. 36) and she drove home after we hit a couple of bars. I stepped out of her car in front of my house. My wife and children were sleeping in their beds. A couple guys were walking down my street ‘— not an unusual occurrence on a Thursday night in my neighborhood.

‘“How ya doin’ fellas?’” I said.

They spun on me quickly. They had hoods pulled over their heads and their faces were covered. I saw a gun.

‘“Oh,’” I said.

I didn’t know it was going to be that kind of party.

Like I say, it’s been a long time since somebody waved a gun in my face. But it’s something that happened to me more than once during the 13 years I lived in New Orleans.

The first time was the hardest. I was 23, a few months shy of graduating college, and I was on my front lawn that time, too. I had hair that hung down between my shoulder blades back then and I remember that I was barefoot. I had about 80 cents on me and a fresh pack of smokes. They took the smokes and the change, but not before leaning me against a fence and going through my pockets while caressing my ribcage with the barrel of the gun.

Like anything else, being accosted at gunpoint is something that gets easier each time it happens. And when they got us this time I knew what to do.

‘“Get out of the car,’” I said to my art director, who when this blows over I’m going to start calling ‘“Lo-Jack.’” She did the right thing: she got out quickly and put some distance between herself and the guy with the piece. I stood very still and kept my eyes away from our attackers. They hopped in the car, stalled out while making a U-turn and sped down my street.

Cartwright was freaked. I knew how she felt: violated, fragile’… vulnerable. The first time is the hardest.

And while I know that there’s not much you can do when you’re staring down the business end of a handgun, I also know that this could have, and should have, been avoided.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: This town is making me soft.

After living in New Orleans for a few years I learned to look up and down the street before getting in and out of my car or my house. I knew to lock my car doors when I was driving and leave them unlocked when I parked, after taking everything of value out of the car. I knew to lock my front door even when I was in the house ‘— especially when I was in the house. I knew never to walk around alone at night, and if it absolutely couldn’t be avoided I knew that the best way to avoid being accosted was to skip down the street instead of walk. Even in New Orleans after midnight nobody’s gonna mess with a crazy white boy who skips down the street.

I’m serious about that one, but it’s a ploy I haven’t had to use since I got stranded with empty pockets at Tipitina’s after a 4 a.m. Lundi Gras show. And frankly, one of the reasons we moved to Greensboro was to cut our odds against the rate of violent crime.

Who moves to Greensboro to get carjacked, for crying out loud?

It was naïve of us to think that by moving here we were isolating ourselves from the big, bad world. There are people everywhere who want what you’ve got. And as far as I’m concerned, if they’ve got a gun they can have it.

But that sentiment is not going to help my art director, who’s still reeling from the shock and fear of her first encounter with armed bandits. It’s not going to help my wife get to sleep in our quiet little neighborhood when the heretofore innocuous sounds of the night will make her bolt upright in our bed. And though I’m something of a salty old fart, I know I will feel a twinge of fear every time the sun sets on our little corner of town, a deep and inevitable knowledge that the bad guys are out there’… in my city’… in my neighborhood’… in my front yard.

From now on I’ll be looking up and down my street when I enter and exit my house. I’ll check my rear view before I get out of my car. I’ll keep the front door locked even when I’m watching ‘“America’s Funniest Home Videos’” with my family in the living room. And I’ll reclaim my sense of caution and fear, things I thought I left behind in the doomed city of New Orleans.

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